Monday, June 3, 2013

Forgiving Baseball's Scapegoats: Johnny Pesky

What the hell just happened?  That was the stunned general reaction of Red Sox fans at the conclusion of the play and the reaction seems to have been so strong that no two people seem to have seen the play the same way.

There was movement from first base, even before the pitch was delivered.  The Cardinals' Enos Slaughter was not the fastest runner, he had never stolen even ten bases in a season, but he was a smart base runner.  At this point in the season every step counted, every foot of ground was important (just ask Fred Merkle).  Game 7 of the 1946 World Series.  Top of the 8th inning.  The Red Sox had tied the game at 3 in the bottom of the 7th and the next run was the most important run in the career of whoever scored it. 

Slaughter had led off the inning with a single but was left there when a failed sacrifice bunt was popped to the pitcher and an easy fly ball to left held Slaughter in place.  As Bob Klinger started his motion to the next batter Slaughter took the chance and went full speed for second.  The Red Sox infield reacted.  Bobby Doerr at Second base and Johnny Pesky at Shortstop moved towards the second base bag to cover a possible throw from the Catcher.

Harry Walker, the batter, made contact with the ball and Slaughter, who had a great jump from first, was almost around second by the time Leon Culberson fielded the ball.  Similar to the Fred Merkle play, this is the last moment that anyone agrees on.  Reading about the details of this play is like playing a game of telephone.  No one can quite agree on what happened and how it happened.  Some said that the ball took a quick scoot on the grass and nearly reached the wall.  Others said Culberson didn't field it quickly or cleanly.  Some said it was an easy bloop single and that Culberson lobbed an easy toss back to the infield.  The participants themselves can't even agree on what happened.  Pesky claimed that Culberson bobbled the ball but Harry Walker said "Culberson didn't bobble the ball and he didn't throw it bad.  It was a perfect throw to Pesky."  Regardless, the fact is Culberson fielded the ball and threw the ball back to the infield. 

Footage of the play shows Pesky making a quick reaction.  He is almost motionless until Klinger starts his movement but once Slaughter is on the move so is Pesky.  He takes about three steps toward second base when Walker makes contact and immediately heads out towards left-center field to take a possible relay throw from Culberson.  By all sane baseball reasoning Slaughter should have held at third.  Slaughter ignored all reasoning and turned third heading for home.  No one could have expected that.  Several newspaper reports said that Slaughter ran despite his third base coach telling him to stop.  One writer said the coach "flapped the come-on sign like an excited mother hen."  Slaughter says the coach was telling him to stop.  Several others agreed that he was sent.  One writer even suggested that Slaughter had time to reach third, check on Pesky and make a planned decision to take the extra base.  Again, regardless, the fact is no one in their right mind thought Slaughter was going to try to score from first on a bloop base hit.

As Slaughter tore around third Pesky received the throw from Culberson and again the stories differ.  Some said that Pesky turned towards second base.  Some said he held the ball.  Some said he made a weak throw home.  Some said he dropped his hands, froze for a moment and then threw home.  The fact of the play is Slaughter scored well ahead of the throw from Pesky.

This all happened in the year of our lord 1946.  For Red Sox fans this happened in the year of our curse 26.  Red Sox fans had not seen a World Series team in nearly 30 years at this point and this was the first round in the 86 year "what if...?" game that followed.  The Red Sox nation screamed for years "what if Pesky hadn't held the ball?"  Fortunately for Pesky, a gracious and likable man, this was before the frustration of not winning a World Series had reached a boiling point so he didn't receive the pure hatred that Bill Buckner and Grady Little would experience in the coming decades.  In fact, up until he passed away just last August, Pesky worked for the Red Sox as a coach and special assistant for the club.  Further, Pesky will be remembered as long as Fenway Park operates.  The Right field Foul Pole has been called "Pesky's Pole" for years because Pesky, although only hitting 17 in his career, hit a big Home Run just around the pole while playing in Boston. 

Fortunately Pesky was able to overcome the label of scapegoat and become beloved by the fans, although, until his last day, he had to deal with the blame of losing the 1946 World Series.  There are plenty of reasons you cannot blame Johnny Pesky for the loss of the 1946 World Series.  Here are just a few:

1.  The Red Sox took a three games to two lead in the series and had to win only one of the final two games.  Despite seven hits and two walks in Game 6, the Red Sox grounded into three double plays and left four men on base while scoring only once.  The Cardinals had only one more hit and two more walks but took advantage of their opportunities and plated 4 runs.

2.  The Red Sox allowed the opportunity to go up three games to 1 slip by them.  Playing game 4 in Boston, the Red Sox had 20 game winner Tex Hughson on the mound facing off against a little used pitcher (only 2-2 on the year) Red Munger.  It was a total mismatch in Boston's favor but the Sox gave up three runs in the second and three runs in the third to allow the Cardinals an early 6-0 lead.  Helping several of these early runs were two errors by the Red Sox.  As the game went on two more Boston errors in the top of the 9th led to four more Cardinal runs.  The final score was 12-3.

3.  During the 1946 season Ted Williams hit .342 with 38 Home Runs scoring 142 runs and driving in 123.  That is one hell of an offensive season.  Hitting directly in front of Williams was Dominic DiMaggio hitting .316 with 73 RBI and hitting directly behind Williams was Rudy York with a .276 average but 119 RBI.  The Cardinals did their home work on Williams and noticed that most of his base hits went to right field and very few went to left field.  To defend against Williams the Cardinals utilised what has been known to history as the Williams shift.  Based on a strategy used by Indians' manager Lou Boudreau, the Cardinals pulled the Second baseman closer to first.  The Shortstop played on the right side of Second base, the Third baseman played a deep short stop and the Left fielder played shallow behind the Third baseman.  The message to Williams was clear.  "We dare you to hit it to the left side."  Instead of trusting the 119 RBI of Rudy York behind him and taking what the Cardinals were giving him by laying down a bunt for a single, Williams insisted on trying to hit everything  to the left side.  He ended the series with a .200 average and only 5 singles (one being a bunt to the left side with the shift on). York, on the other hand, had only six hits in the series but four were for extra bases including two Home Runs.  Had Williams laid down a few more bunts to third for singles York's RBI total may have been higher than the five he ended up with and the shift may have been defeated.  Williams was devastated by his performance and wept in the showers after Game 7 and in the entire cab ride home.

4.  This Cardinals team was a great team.  Although they had missed the 1945 World Series, mostly due to players serving time in the military, this was one of the great Cardinals dynasties and they had been in this position before.  The Cardinals had won the National League in 1942, 1943 and  1944 and had just completed a great pennant race with the Brooklyn Dodgers that ended in the first ever National League playoff.  The Cardinals were a team that had to fight all year to make the World Series, never getting more than a 2 1/2 game lead on the Dodgers after July 31.  The Red Sox, however, had not played a meaningful game coming into the World Series, having won the AL by 12 games.

5.  Slaughter's philosophy worked.  When you have the time to field a baseball and make a proper throw, something these men do almost mechanically, there are few simpler things.  However, when you are forced to catch, turn and throw, while determining how far the runner is from the plate and where the throw needs to be then things get much more complicated.  Possessing a strong arm does not always translate into being a great arm.  Ty Cobb would routinely take gambles on the base path and do the opposite of what the baseball strategies of the day said.  His theory was make them throw you out.  You know and they know that they have the ability to do it but can they do it when they have to do it.  This aggressive philosophy seems to be just what Slaughter had in mind and it could just as easily have backfired on him.  Slaughter had a great jump on the ball and took a gamble that he could surprise the Red Sox by making the turn.  His gamble and aggressive move forced the Red Sox to make a perfect field, throw, catch, turn, throw and tag to record the out.

6. Slaughter only made the gamble because Culberson was playing Center field.  The regular Center fielder was Dominic DiMaggio and he was a great fielding outfielder.  Probably one of the best of the era.  DiMaggio was responsible for sending the game into the 9th inning tied when he hit a two run double to tie the game.  Maybe this is where the curse talk should have started because DiMaggio hurt his leg rounding first on the double and was replaced by Culberson as the pinch runner.  Slaughter said later: "DiMaggio had a great arm but Culberson didn't have too good of an arm, and he wasn't as quick as DiMaggio.  DiMaggio would have gotten rid of it a lot quicker.  I don't think I would've even tried."  DiMaggio had even more confidence.  "He might not even have tried to go to third."

7.  Pesky did nothing wrong.  The video footage shows Pesky catching, turning and making a strong throw in a continuous motion.  The idea that Pesky turned towards second is ridiculous.  By the time Pesky even had the ball and had turned Slaughter was nearly a third of the way home.  Remember, this is a Game 7 of a World Series and the place is packed.  The home town team is about to score a winning run so it would be amazing if any fan had a voice left after this play.  The roar was deafening so although Culberson said that he and Williams were screaming that the play was at the plate and Bobby Doerr may or may not have notified Pesky as well, Pesky wouldn't have heard a thing.  He was on his own and given the circumstances the Red Sox were fortunate it was as close as it was.


  1. Pesky seems to be the first in these series of scapegoats to "get off easy" since he wasn't as vilified as Merkle and Snodgrass were.

    1. You are correct. Because this was the beginning of the "curse" talk and before there were generations of close call Pesky was not a victim of the hatred that others in this series will be. Fortunately, Pesky was able to continue his career but Sox fans would always say "if only Pesky hadn't held the ball we would have won it in 1946."


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